Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 4 - October 2001

1102 Is Dead

By William Rossiter, CSI President

The commercial lobster boat sloshed through the dull gray windswept sea near Cultivator Shoal in late May, many miles offshore of Massachusetts. The tired crew tossed the lobster pots overboard and the long line of traps settled to the bottom, linked by a very strong "ground line" of 11/16th inch thick polypropylene. In the darkness below the buoyant line often arced above the bottom wherever pots were close enough together.

The enormous right whale ran into the arcing line while skimming that same darkness sometime after, mouth agape for the swarming tons of tiny creatures just above the bottom. As the line entered his mouth he reacted with alarm, rolling hard and fast, then surging towards the surface. His roll looped the line around his upper jaw. The combined line and pots cut the rope into his flesh. Now there was panic and pain. Among the most powerful creatures on earth, he was just able to surface and breathe, dragged down by the unbreakable line of lobster pots. Consider for a moment the many entangled whales that could not surface from their entanglements.

The lobster boat's precise electronic navigation brought them back to where the line should have been, to harvest their catch, but the lead buoy was off the track; they were lucky to find it. As they began to pull in the traps they saw the stationary whale's weak blow; they knew they had a bad problem. Carefully the boat moved closer. With considerable effort they cut the lines as close to the whale as they dared, hoping that it would be free, but also to retrieve as much of their gear and catch as possible. This is a best guess at how this precious whale became entangled; no one knows exactly how it happened. But what follows is true, a magnificent example of courage, caring and expertise.

Immediately after the entangled whale was reported, the Center for Coastal Studies, the core of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, launched the first of many rescue efforts on 8 June. From the start this was obviously a difficult rescue, but the entanglement would be fatal unless the rope was removed and the wound treated. Over the next 100 days rescuers tried everything that they could think of, always under dangerous conditions. The story became a headlined news item as the media chronicled the massive rescue effort. To personalize the whale 1102 was nicknamed "Churchill". Whenever 1102 was reachable, and the weather workable, the rescue effort launched. But as repeated rescues failed, even as other entangled whales were rescued, the inevitable questions came: Why so much effort for one whale? Because there are perhaps 325 surviving right whales in the whole North Atlantic, and humans are still killing them. Each is precious in many ways. Each impact is a symbol of human folly.

In spite of enormous effort by rescuers, by 16 September right whale 1102 was presumed dead off New Jersey, south of Georges Bank, having wandered over 5,000 miles with the jaw-cutting line slowly killing him. In between was an incredible story of courageous, determined effort by the Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team, supported by dozens of members of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network in the U.S. and Canada. You can get all the details from the Center for Coastal Studies, P.O. Box 1036, Provincetown, MA 02657, 508-487-3622, http://www.coastalstudies.org.

Right whales will not recover unless the significant number of human impacts can be lessened. Other species are at risk as well. Lines, gear and boats impact too many large whales. The Center for Coastal Studies humpback scarification study is the latest documentation of the extent of the tragedy. The alarming details will be available for publication soon, but just for New England's humpbacks. The international scope of the problem is unknown. Many people are working on solutions for right whales, such as seasonal closures for fisheries, mandatory ship reporting, alerting or routing ships away from whales, and speed restrictions for commercial shipping. Progress has been frustratingly slow.

You could provide a solution! Innovative ideas are being sought for fishing gear modifications, and fresh ideas are in short supply. Find out where the problems and gaps are, and put your brain to work to save whales. For example, think about that lobster pot line arcing above the bottom that may have caught 1102. Fishermen know that a line in contact with the sea bottom will chafe and may fail, losing all their gear. Perhaps 10 percent of lobster gear is lost every year even with floating ground lines, an economic and biological penalty that needs attention. Any "solution" demanding sinking lines will be fought. But there are steps to introduce neutrally buoyant lines on a trial basis. Trials also are proving slip links that don't knot. Knotted ropes catch in baleen, the reason too many whales trail buoys as well as lines. New regulations now require weak buoy attachments that break at 500 pounds of pressure. Breakable points might have saved 1102. There are other innovations in mind. Let it be said now that no one should hold fishermen to blame for the entanglement crisis. The whales need their concern and cooperation. Some of the problem has been an incredible bureaucracy that has wasted time, money, and whales.

Frustrated with that waste, in spite of two years of record appropriations to help right whales, Senators Hollings and Kerry have introduced S. 1380, "A bill to coordinate and expand United States and international programs for the conservation and protection of North Atlantic Right Whales." Through language and intent this bill seeks to specify and demand meaningful action and immediate assistance to help the whales. By the time you read this newsletter the House may have a companion bill in progress. You can make a difference! Please contact your people in Congress to ask them to cosponsor and support these bills.

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